Javier Marías’ A Heart So White is an exploration of relationships, growing up, and the power of secrets. It starts dramatically, a newlywed committing suicide in the middle of a lunch with her family and husband. Although we don’t yet know the characters it is an emotional scene – the detail of the description, the assertion that she’d left the door unlocked, perhaps in the hope that someone would come in and stop her. It is heartbreaking. The narrative quickly jumps forward to shortly after our narrator’s (Juan’s) wedding. This creates a neat symmetry, the difference between the two events. He talks of a sense of a loss of future, of the change in feelings toward Luisa, his new wife. This is not to say he does not love her, it becomes clear throughout that he feels strongly for her, but he worries about their new life and how it will change their relationship. Marriage is not portrayed as simple, there is no sense of happy ever after in this novel, but the reality of married life, the growth and work that is necessary.
If you expect the focus of this book to be the suicide, you will be surprised. After the initial scene it is barely alluded to throughout. Instead, Marías delves into the lives and relationships of Juan, questioning familial relationships and the way we think about our parents and the transformation it goes through as the child grows to adulthood. This is certainly a book that will make you think. He makes the events not merely about the lives of the characters but broadens them out as opportunity for musing on ideas in general. Even as the cause of the suicide is finally revealed there are comments on the nature of love, and the desire to share everything. Marías also proves something of a tease, beginning the revelation and then delaying the final moment, discussing details of daily routine and the speakers’ voices.
Marías does not opt for a straight narrative but it is easy to follow, even if he is somewhat coy about saying exactly when something happened – telling the reader in a roundabout way through the age of different characters, the length of time since something else happened. He uses long sentences and repetition of phrases is common, indeed there are large sections of the end passages which are direct repeats from various points in the novel. This helps to focus the reader’s attention on the ideas that are prevalent and to understand how all the seemingly unconnected events do indeed relate. The technique also gives a sense of reality, people do no think in entirely original thoughts all of the time, ideas will be pondered many times, and the repeated mantras throughout become familiar, and yet different as the characters develop and a deeper understanding is possible.
This was my first experience of Marías’ work and it’s safe to assume I’ll be coming back for more. He creates a world where you can be both entirely involved in the characters while also being encouraged to think about the issues in terms of real life. It is rare to find a book so engaging and thought provoking, to start so dramatically and yet explore the everyday. A Heart So White is definitely worth a read.